Not All Artists Are Young. Or Childless.

Posted by Tiffany Eng on January 5, 2017

On Dec. 3, the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland became the deadliest in the city’s history, claiming the lives of 36 individuals. The warehouse inferno also consumed an event venue and artist collective that up to two dozen people—many of them artists—called home.

In the weeks since the fire, there's been no shortage of reporting on the many factors that set the scene for this tragedy, including the lack of coordination between public agencies, the disregard for common safety measures, and the broader housing crisis that disproportionately affects artists.

And yet, there has been little reported on the fact that for the past few years, a family that included three young children was living in the Ghost Ship in unsafe and substandard living conditions. While the subtenants who made the warehouse their home opted into the collective, the children likely had little choice in the matter. While their lives were thankfully spared, their improvised home was not.

Given the circumstances, it’s not enough to characterize artists simply as individuals in need of affordable places to create and live. We need to first understand that artists are a very diverse group, with a range of incomes, ages, and household sizes. And as the victims of the fire have demanded, we also need strong rental protections, eviction controls, and safe and affordable spaces for those who have been marginalized by society to gather and collaborate.

But if we genuinely want to make room for our artistic communities to thrive, we need to consider them within the full circle of life.

It’s a fact of life that some of Oakland's young creatives will eventually become partners and parents. Some of them will want to stay in Oakland to continue to pursue their talents as they start and raise a family. If we want artists and musicians to stay and keep contributing to the vibrancy of our city, we need to build more affordable housing that accommodates artists and their growing households. 

It doesn’t take too much digging to debunk the mainstream profile of the urban creative class. Here in Oakland there are many artists, musicians, and other creatives raising their children while continuing to build a more beautiful city with their talents.

According to D. Edward, an accomplished musician/singer/songwriter born and raised in Oakland, “I’ve been in bands since high school, and in every band I’ve ever been in, there’s been at least one member that’s had a baby.” Tommy Wong, a parent and Oakland artist currently coordinating an intergenerational community art installation in Chinatown, agrees. “Most all of the local artists I know are parents.”

It’s also worth noting that many of Oakland’s youngest artists are not the twenty-somethings featured prominently in the media. Rather, they are our very own children and youth, many of whom have been cultivated by our world-class offerings of diverse arts programming. Indeed, our youth are not the “next” generation of artists, they are one of many generations of artists that make our city, and others, so unique. Today. Now. So, efforts to increase housing for artists must ensure that our youngest artists and their families can find affordable places to live.

As coalitions and task forces in cities across the nation spring into action to assemble panel discussions, reform inspection procedures, and develop housing strategies in response to the Ghost Ship tragedy, we would be well-served to get beyond the cliché personas of the young and single artist or underground musician eking out a living on the edges of town. As our communities look deeper into the issues surrounding affordable housing and workspaces for artists, let’s remember that not all artists are single. To adequately plan for and house Oakland artists, we should:

  • Learn. Take a deeper look at the artist demand for housing and demographics. Research the percentage of artists who have partners or children, and the changing trends and demands for housing and workspace over past real estate cycles. Seek to understand how families in particular are being displaced by rising housing costs.
  • Diversify artist housing strategies. Support the development of more than just artist studios and performance spaces. Review other family friendly artist developments in other cities and encourage the development of 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom units in new developments. A diversity of unit sizes within a single project gives artists the opportunity to size up within the same community, without having to relocate when their families grow and needs change. 
  • Design for every generation. Consider child-friendly amenities like playgrounds, courtyards, and community rooms in housing developments and performance spaces. For example, some family friendly artist developments in other cities have included a playground, garden area, and even a computer lab for children.
  • Ask, “Who benefits?” Evaluate proposals and possible project models for semi-public art spaces by considering who benefits, by age range. Can parents safely bring their kids to work periodically? Will this be a place where children can also take classes, visit, and explore? Is it convenient and accessible for seniors to engage? 

Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. Other cities have been creating a range of developments that integrate family friendly affordable housing with artist housing. We can learn from them.

Artists and musicians are sensitive to the effects of gentrification. They need extra space to practice, create, show, sell, and perform. But artists with families are particularly vulnerable, as they also need more room for children to grow and play. By committing to take action to support artists and artist families, we can make our cities more affordable, inclusive, and beautiful for generations to come.

(Image: A young artist completes a community mural at an Oakland festival at Jack London Square. Photo courtesy of the author. Twitter image: Jocelyn Kinghorn, via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

About the author more »

Tiffany Eng is the Program Director for Grounded Solutions Network's HomeKeeper program. HomeKeeper is a Salesforce web application designed to help affordable housing programs better manage information and measure impact. Tiffany currently oversees product development, marketing and member outreach. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and two children.

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